On the morning of February 24, 2022, Artur Abramiv woke up to the “surreal” news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He and his wife spent the next few hours nervously flipping through news channels on the television of their apartment, located on the outskirts of Lviv in the western part of the country, where Abramiv was born and raised. Bombs were dropped and sirens went off like alarm bells. “Even when I managed to get some sleep that night, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all,” the 27-year-old photojournalist recounts the horrors of the incident as his insomnia spilled over the coming days. “Even in silence, I heard sirens.”
Each time the signals blared, the couple hid on cue in the safest corner of the apartment: a bathroom near the load-bearing walls. In the neighbouring house, residents of 40 apartments huddled together in a basement. Abramiv is careful not to disclose his precise whereabouts, lest he compromises safety of the people there. He had hoped for the situation to settle. Instead, the events that ensued were no short of a nightmare.
The nation quickly turned into a battle ground, reviving memories of World War II. Houses were razed to the ground in hotspot zones. Fierce fighting broke out between Russian and Ukrainian troops on the streets of Gostomel, a town in Kyiv Oblast, north-western suburb to the capital city of Kyiv. Russian soldiers occupied and shelled private homes, unaware of panic-struck families who took cover in basements, praying they dare not be found.
Lviv’s central railway station, a 1904-built Art Nouveau edifice, doubled as a shelter site for civilians. Each day, hundreds of thousands, especially from bombed-out cities in the east, flocked to the platforms, with their lives packed in suitcases, hoping to hop aboard a Poland-bound train.
“The place we’re going to will have more toys and new cartoons,” Abramiv, who set out to document the ground reality on an assignment for National Geographic Traveller India, overheard parents comforting their children amidst tearful goodbyes to their homeland. As of February 24, 9 p.m., President Volodymyr Zelensky has decreed male citizens, aged 18-60, to stay behind and fight for the country. The decision to flee was a last resort for many and it came at the cost of leaving behind loved ones. But it seemed like their best shot at staying alive.
Women who were unable to secure a seat on trains, which is made free for all since the commencement of the war, crossed borders with their children however best they could: via their own vehicles and even on foot. Buses with civilians lined the border for as long as three days. Volunteers set up temporary kitchens to serve warm food and drinks to refugees crossing over. Unfortunately, people went hungry for the fear of losing out on their turn. Some even abandoned their suitcases and cars.
Western Ukraine became a green corridor for those in exile. Queues stretched beyond 10 kilometres on the border with the EU. The UN has thus far reported two million refugees that have left Ukraine to seek asylums in neighbouring nations. The exodus is alarming. Amidst escalating tensions, Omicron continued to surge too. Some were forced to evacuate regions even before they had the chance to recover.
“It’s like my childhood during the war,” a 91-year-old Alzheimer’s patient grappled with the destruction of Kyiv, her native city, shortly after regaining consciousness.
The parallel is not a hyperbole. A night curfew is imposed after 10 p.m. and lights inside homes are required by law to be turned out. Darkness prevails in every alley. “People have learnt to differentiate between the sounds of rockets, projectiles and bombs,” mentions Abramiv. Russian troops have laid the groundwork for a hunger blockade in major cities. Basic provisions of food, water, gas, electricity and heating have been choked. A six-year-old child is reported to have died of dehydration in the south-eastern city of Mariupol. Residential neighbourhoods, hospitals and educational institutions are being shelled. Supplies are stocked up by the general population and shelves at shops in cities not yet affected by the bombing are rapidly emptying. Stores have implemented restrictions on products, permitting people to buy only three packs of pasta, for instance. Most pharmacies have shuttered, while those that continue to operate have run out of medicines.
On March 4, Russian forces captured Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest of its kind in Europe, according to regional officials. The NPP, stationed at Enerhodar on the banks of the Kakhovka reservoir on the Dnieper river, is believed to produce one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity and almost half the energy generated by the country’s nuclear power facilities.
More than 400 kilometres away in Kharkiv, people taking cover in basements were tossed by the shock waves. The bombing was so strong that individuals were thrown off their seats like on a trampoline. Temperatures soared sharply due to a fire that broke out at the Kharkiv Tank Factory. Eyewitnesses say that one can only step out in a short-sleeved shirt.
There is also a looming threat of direct terrorist attacks by saboteurs. Backpacks with explosives have already been found in Kyiv. As a result, Ukrainian officials have tightened security measures and stringent checking of documents is enforced throughout the country.
Displacement has left thousands homeless, jobless and vulnerable. In such times of crisis, volunteers have come forward to help refugees find housing and provide them with psychological support. But every day comes with its share of instability. “I have prepared an emergency suitcase so I can escape from the fighting with only the most necessary things,” Abramiv confesses, albeit wishes the day never arrives.
Artur Abramiv is a Ukraine-based documentary and adventure photographer, who has dabbled in the art for 14 years. He regularly travels around Europe and treks to the mountains for inspiration.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.